Street Date 4/11/23;
Stars Steve McQueen, Bobby Darin, Harry Guardino, James Coburn, Fess Parker, Nick Adams, Bob Newhart.
Perched before your eyes dwells an old dove whose feathers ruffle at the mere thought of war films that end happily. Glamorizing war for the sake of entertainment and/or enlistment purposes is almost as heinous as clubbing baby seals or denying election results. By all rights, great war films should end with not one cast member left standing. It’s the ultimate statement an artist can make on the subject. Alas, there is no such thing as a bad genre, but damn if recruitment films aren’t second in line behind slasher films as the worst cinema has to offer. Even then, Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima is so effectively persuasive that before the final fade you’re halfway out the door in search of the nearest Military Entrance Processing Station. Hell Is For Heroes spends half of its running time straddling comedy and war’s horrors before director Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick) takes a relentless, much needed tumble over to the dark side.
There’s a difference between characters laughing under pressure and audience-appeasing shtick, a line that’s easily blurred by screenwriters Robert Pirosh and Richard Carr. From Marx Bros. gag writer to “The Waltons” scribe, Pirosh found steady work as producer, studio scenarist and beyond. His service during World War II formed a basis for Battleground (1949), his smash, awards-all-around combat drama. “Combat!,” Pirosh’s small-screen follow-up to 1962’s Hell Is for Heroes, hit the airwaves just as its predecessor’s theatrical run was winding down. Apart from back-to-back big screen glories — John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues predated Hell Is For Heroes — co-scripter Carr carved his niche on the small screen. The majority of the dialog would have felt at home on “Combat!” It’s only when the characters shut up long enough to allow Siegel to draw us into the action that we begin to feel for them. Bonus points: a stock footage assemblage of cannon fire no doubt inspired by the director’s salad days spent cutting together montages for Warner Bros.
Situated in Montigny, France, a rest area within spitting distance of the Siegfried line, Sgt. Larkin (Harry Guardino) and his men don’t know it, but the army stands poised to set the battalion up for a sanity-rattling letdown. Looking to bolster morale, the combat-fatigued squadron is led to believe a move stateside is imminent, when in fact, the top brass has something in mind other than rest and relaxation. Rather than reassignment, the squad is ordered back to the front line. Bad news: there’s but six men holding the section. Good news: the Germans didn’t know it.
The pacing suffers to no end from the forced, TV-sized comic relief that plagues the film’s first half. Opening scenes alternate uncomfortably between serviceable ’60s service comedy and prelude to a variation on the Bataan Death March. Private Dave Corby (Bobby Darin) is the Ensign Pulver of infantrymen, a walking PX quick with a joke and eager to provide one with anything from libations to ink pens for a price. Of all the characters in the film, Corby is the least developed. Coming close is Homer (Nick Adams), a Polish mascot of sorts, a “displaced person” following the band around like a Grateful Dead groupie looking to hitch a ride back to the States while earning cheap laughs with his fractured English.
A good portion of the shooting, both in and out of the studio, took place at night, but don’t be quick to label it a war noir. Necessitated by the heatwave that hit Cottonwood and Reading, Calif., in the sweltering summer of 1961, a night shoot was put in place to oblige the actors. Making his big screen debut as PFC James E. Driscoll, Bob Newhart pulls up around the halfway mark in a jeep loaded with typewriters. His picture credit in the trailer was accompanied by a parenthetical (THE BUTTON DOWN MIND), a reference to Newhart’s top-selling comedy album of the same name. According to the comedian’s autobiography, the unexpected success of the LP resulted in sell-out crowds for his nightclub performances. Looking to cash in, Newhart pleaded with Siegel to kill Driscoll off so as to accommodate more time for standup gigs. The director assured him that his character would live to see the end.
Newhart was a prop comic who became famous for working a phone on stage, earning laughs by allowing audiences to eavesdrop on his side of the conversation. The producers reserved a minute or so of the running time for Newhart to ply his act. Knowing full well that the Krauts bugged the makeshift headquarters, Driscoll pretends to be the group entertainment officer calling his C.O. to complain about inflicting repeat viewings of Road to Morocco on the men. (Newhart wrote his own dialogue.) Siegel’s objections to the scene were shot down by studio heads eager to cross-promote. Newhart remained M.I.A. for the majority of the climactic combat but, true to Siegel’s word, he popped up for one last shot before the soldiers commenced to blow up the pillbox.
Steve McQueen’s Reese is a consummate Siegel loner, a man of few words who goes out of his way not to make friends. His life is one series of broken promises after another. What’s the best way to keep Reese from going into town for a few snorts? Tell him the tavern is strictly off limits. He ignores the shot glass provided by the barkeep, opting to drink straight from the bottle. Soldiers are trained to take orders. Reese is a Dirty Harry-style vigilante, a professional living for combat and refusing to crack up until the pressure is off.
No sooner does the final bomb gut the pillbox than the film grinds to a grainy halt. Some have interpreted the abrupt ending as a nihilistic middle finger to the militaristic control of a malevolent government. When asked, Newhart told an interviewer the film had gone so wildly over budget that Paramount refused to provide any more film stock.
Toward the end of his life, my father and I began bonding over war movies. He would bring me up to speed on military jargon while I pointed out the fluid long takes and mise-en-scene in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way. My father would have loved the audio commentary shared by filmmakers and historians Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin.